Fed’s unwanted ally in bid to tame inflation: Credit crunch
WASHINGTON — The Federal Reserve is getting some unwanted help in its drive to slow the U.S. economy and defeat the worst bout of inflation in four decades: a cutback in bank lending.
The upheaval in the financial system that’s followed the collapse of two major U.S. banks is raising the likelihood that lending standards will become sharply more restrictive. Fewer loans would mean less spending by consumers and businesses. That, in turn, would make it harder for companies to raise prices, thereby reducing inflationary pressures.
At the same time, some economists worry that the slowdown might prove so severe as to send the economy sliding into a painful recession.
On Wednesday, the Fed raised its benchmark interest rate for the ninth time in just over a year. The central bank’s policymakers are struggling with a persistently high inflation rate that has bedeviled American households and heightened the uncertainties overhanging the economy. At roughly 6%, U.S. inflation remains well below last year’s peak yet is still far above the Fed’s 2% annual target.
But the Fed also signaled that it might be nearing the end of its rate hikes. In part, that is because a decline in bank lending could help the central bank achieve its overarching goal of slowing the economy and taming inflation.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday after the Fed’s announcement, Chair Jerome Powell suggested that stricter lending standards, resulting in a pullback in loans, could have the same slowing effect on inflation that a Fed hike can.
“It doesn’t all have to come from rate hikes,” Powell said. “It can come from tighter credit conditions.”
Similarly, after the European Central Bank raised its own benchmark rate by a substantial half percentage point last week, its president, Christine Lagarde, said the ECB was not locking itself into a preset plan for rate hikes and that future rate decisions would be made on a meeting-to-meeting basis.
Anxieties surrounding the European banking system “might have an impact on demand and might actually do some of the work that might otherwise be done by monetary policy,” Lagarde said just days after two major U.S. banks collapsed and the Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse required a rescue by its rival UBS.
Indeed, if Europe were to experience a credit crunch, analysts say, last week’s ECB rate hike might be its last for a while.
ECB officials have said their banks are “resilient” and have strong enough capital buffers and cash to cover whatever deposit withdrawals they face. European supervisors have applied international standards, requiring more ready cash on hand. By contrast, U.S. regulators exempted all but the very largest U.S. banks. Silicon Valley Bank was one of those exempted banks.
And when loans are more expensive and harder to qualify for, consumers, who drive most of the U.S. economy’s growth, are less likely to spend.
Gregory Daco, chief economist at the consulting firm EY-Parthenon, said he thinks a significant credit squeeze would have “slightly more” of an economic impact than the quarter-point rate hike the Fed announced Wednesday.
Edward Yardeni, an independent economist, said he would estimate that the impact would be even larger — the equivalent of a full percentage point hike by the Fed.
Inflation could slow as a result, helping the central bank accomplish its long-standing goal. But the toll on economic growth could be substantial, too. Most economists have said they expect a recession to occur in the United States by the second half of this year. The main question is how severe it might be.
Signs of a possible credit crunch in the United States had begun to emerge even before Silicon Valley Bank collapsed on March 10, raising worries about the stability of the financial system.